Slightly Off Course
“For me, the crucial factor," Elvira states, striking fist on palm, “is to bring all these disagreements to a head. After this cursillo I don’t want hear any more about sides.” Chappie looks up from his food bowl and wonders where to shelter from her vehemence. Consensus also tops my wish list. So, I add rather brusquely, “Which will mean abandoning all this voting nonsense.”
“The heart of democracy,” Julio objects. No, no, voting is the worm in the rose, but I leave the thought unspoken, and switch to money. “Either there’s too much floating around, or there's none. It'll cause us problems.”
“We’ll make the cash work for us,” says Elvira, illustrating both her naivety and resolve.
Sunrise on the morning of the course, one last meeting to thrash out a strategy, but the pink horizon and the sharp, clean air can’t guarantee clear vision. I look over at Chappie munching his breakfast. He’s left the chuño, the black, dried potato that I get criticized for rejecting. Asunta who turns into a model maid when any directorio member is around, collects our plates. “See,” I crow, “Chappie won’t eat them either.” “Ah well, he thinks chuño is a dog’s nose, that’s why he doesn’t touch it,” says Asunta.
Everyone backs the old girl, they’re nodding in agreement. Yet so absurd an explanation can’t be true, can it? Or is this how this course is going to progress, as we invent sets of answers to fit the facts?
“Bien, Jaime, you’ll have to come up with the ideas. You’re the teacher.”
That's what you think, I almost tell them. But perhaps it's not the best moment to reveal they're relying on a young man who’s not even qualified. The truth; I entered Leaside on a faked copy of Geordie’s teaching diploma. Two days from the start of classes and a desperate headmaster neglects to check my credentials, and pushes me in front of class. I plunged into my new career.
Soon learning to maintain reasonable discipline (the noise of a riot must never carry) and fill out continuous assessment reports in triplicate. A few years at the dreary game and one does acquire a certain steel-plated proficiency.
I’m the imposter who evolved into an adequate teacher. Better get Sandy out of bed and on the move before I’m tempted into confess publicly.
A fair turnout.. Good to see so many mothers, such intense expectation. No schoolkid apathy or aggro here. But are we on the same wavelength? The kid who's crying has me wondering.
Of the many little 'uns chasing round the brightly coloured bundles, this one has managed to tumble into a chair and split his lip. Mum cuddles him, then she strikes the chair really hard. Now, she says, repeat after me, “bad chair, naughty chair.” The boy is being given essential pre-cumbia training, taught to blame from an early age.
Makes me nervous. All this time and I can’t remember the handshaking routine. Clockwise or anti? I do wish they wouldn’t keep moving around.
Still, Sandy’s warm-up works reasonably well. Mime the three things that you’d most like to change. We forget to specify in or out of the association but interestingly the groups all choose ex-office situations. Recurrent images of quarrels, queues and privilege. In one delicious parody, snooty Edmundo, nervous Oswaldo and roguish Faustino drive off with the spoils while Ana subserviently distracts the socios. Marvellous depiction, but my reputation as an entertainer worries Rigoberto. Cut the fun n’ games, he warns, our folk expect analysis this time, .
OK, you want it ballsy not folksy, here we go. The question before us today is to how to run the show. And your task is to make recommendations. Keep them simple since no-one here is an expert. No, I can’t give any further guidance. We want to hear your opinions. Sure, you can ask anything, we’ll be circulating. Three study groups - social over there, projects by the staircase, administration, that table’s yours. One hour max.
I’m not optimistic this will work. Already a sense of frustration is tangible; the teacher refuses to teach. I'm counting on the confusion to spur us, but providing students with the tools to do the job is a fundamental part of classroom technique. More likely, we'll reach false conclusions on insufficient data, as was the case in the dog’s nose/chuño example.
Rigoberto judges he must step into the gap and delivers a political sermon veering between the mythical (the Lake is our source) and stern socialism, the authorized version of Pablo’s vision. Disturbing to hear it expressed so trenchantly. Are dinosaurs to roam the earth again?
I suppose Rigoberto’s right. He does well to remind us that we cannot ignore the political. On the streets, revolution is being openly proposed. And yet the forces of reaction mass. An unwary remark in front of el coronelito‘s photo is a whippable offense.
After receiving the lecture, though, the socios submit willingly to their study groups. None of that earlier nonsense about dividing according to birthdates. Elvira has balanced the lists. “I want to see the countryside talking to the city, knitters negotiating with stonemasons. Adelante.”
The layout of the woolsacks is my contribution. Comfortable to lean against, handy as desktops, giving each group a defined working space. The animators circulate but we’re all holding back, even Julio, as if afraid of opening the door to the tiger’s cage.
When Wim arrives, ten on the dot, to video the session, we have to call an early break for coffee and avocado-salad sandwiches. Though Elvira explains that we're merely filming to ease the donors’ concern, suspicions are rife. Politics again; uncool to be caught on film. I take a peek at what Wim has recorded and am startled to see this tall, manic, fair-haired gringo, up-front, totally out of place. Wim leaves.
I consider my use to these people. Don’t speak their language, don’t watch their favorite tv programs or share their enthusiasms. I’ve asked myself many times why they want me to stay. What's that Chinese proverb, if a question has no answer, it's been put the wrong way? Meanwhile I must be careful, very careful, hindsight will be too late.
Crumbs and green fibres scatter as I clap my hands to summon the plenary session. It takes me a while to identify the source of confusion; Elvira’s mix has dissolved into its original clusters. I’m fielding unrelated comments. One at a time, please.
More credit, some shout. Doesn’t work, I tell them, you need infrastructure and a market. Then give us projects, there’s a quarter million dollars on the way, we’ve heard. Projects require professional management, I add. Ah, so you also think we’re incapable, sneers Berta. The money may never arrive, explains Elvira. Plus, since the grant was for running costs and wages, it’s no longer applicable. Murmuring - the new staff are set to grab it for themselves. No, no, we are equals now. Ha, scoffs Berta and her insult ripples around the hall.
The bottom line, provide work, or else.
By lunch, I can almost congratulate myself on a laidback facilitation, the enabler who doesn’t cajole, doesn’t impose, draws on the material - until I overhear the two women complain, “At least Ana oriented us, muy buena era nomás. This one's lost.” From right-on to write-off.
Elvira’s been listening too. “Take charge, Jaime, impose your style. Ana used to insult people, if they deserved it. Padre Ignatz does it all the time. Are you too shy or scared?”
It’s the diggers who rescue the afternoon. Under Gerard Winstanley the original Diggers founded the first modern commune, later crushed by Cromwell. Today, Don Basilio reminds us that little businesses do not a revolution make. Are we moneymakers or a beacon, do we live comfortably or dangerously? His mining tales refocus our attention on suffering and struggle.
So, let’s assume the money does get blocked and we’re on our own. What do we have, what can we do, who’s going do it? Shouts from all around the hall. This building, three stories high and purged. A vacant clinic behind the airport. One thousand members and their hands. A network in town and country.
I ask what it's all for; once more they diverge.
Teofila and Amalia favour a crafts revival guild. Julio dreams of an ecological miracle, the garden city on the heights. Elvira and Lidia are more political; they want an autonomous union, one with muscle, modelled on the teachers or miners that can bring the economy to its knees. But most of the socios would settle for a modest, regular income. They’ll knit for the foreigners, sew cloth in a sweatshop, sell produce in the streets, even dig ditches.
“If that's the case,” says Basilio, jumping up. “In the new villas there’s plenty of work installing water-pipes. We can all heave picks and shovels - the contracts are specifically for organized labour; that’s us." And to my surprise Rigoberto swoops from his eyrie to back the proposal. I’d never have suspected the man possessed such civic pride.
The dam has burst, ideas flow.
Although the cursillo has no decision-making powers (and such points are rigorously observed), we do recommend this strange hotch-potch of measures to the next directorio. First, acronyms out, a change of name to New Dawn, Machaq Q", if only for our internal use. Then, an end to majority voting, consensus is in - hurray, I’ve convinced them. And Rigoberto, almost ironically, insists on the ditch-digging program. Let’s go for it immediately, he says. In addition, Wim’s pal should poke around in the hope of uncovering the financial truth. I’m ordered to learn Aymara, asked to print a weekly magazine and even permitted to end the day on a note of frivolity.
Sandy quit mid-morning when I could no longer spare the time to translate, but the game is hers and she's left the rope. First, I tie the legs of a dozen people, varying the length of free rope. Julio and Elvira have a metre of play, Berta and her cronies are joined to within a few centimetres. March! They all fall down. Lesson; synchronize.
Second: I blindfold the same people, guide their hands to the rope. Now, without letting go, form a square. Great hilarity for everyone except the participants who find the task impossible. They are then helped by the sighted. Message, we must look to/for others. Something of that ilk. I'm tired.
“By no means brilliant. We covered most points.”
While Chappie shakes fleas over my bed, Sandy rolls the remedial joint. “Gender issues, education, womens’ health, domestic violence, abortion, justice, any of those get discussed?”
“Well, not exactly, Sandy. There wasn’t time. It all became a little incoherent.”
“But you’re satisfied? You retained your personal popularity. And their private club has been reorganized. Should function quite efficiently now.”
She hands over the smoking oracle. A seed crackles and bursts. I do admire this prickly, smug, sunburnt woman. I’m unwise enough to reply in kind.
“So, how was Tzipi?” I enquire.
“That is the kind of typically crude, dumb question I’d expect from you.”
“We discussed you at length.”
“I bet you did. And..............?”
“We're looking forward to meeting your mum. Can’t wait to see who spawned this weirdo.”
As yet no news and don’t expect any. She's bound to appear at the most inconvenient moment.
Joanne comes flouncing from the baggage-claim in a gypsy skirt and floral-patterned blouse, the trilling laugh preceding her like a scythe. For one who believes so fervently in personal freedom (hers), it's extraordinary how Joanne conforms to type. Other passengers move aside, a security guard tenses though he must realize she's mostly harmless.
"Hi mum," "Hi son." I ruffle the bristles of her haircut, she fondles my new moustache. Intimate, relative strangers, we snuggle into an embrace, both exclaiming, "How you’ve changed."
I am different, too. The aerodrome I mocked on arrival now seems quite impressive, all those those gleaming toilets and coffee-bars! The lines of passengers at the American Airlines desk, their cellphones, their insistent, mewling kids, their vacations in Virginia - incomprehensible. And I have a scary addition to my armoury; the freshly honed paranoia alerting me to the hidden cameras and sniffer-dogs around the airport.
Attention; she's through the automatic doors and wandering. Admire your initiative, mum, but this way please; a chauffeur and official car await. We cross the asphalt to where Luis is bobbing deferentially by the Toyota (Trail Blazer still impounded) and already he’s calling my mum 'comadre'. The car’s scars have been polished to a sheen, which detail Joanne, gasping in the glacial air, fails to notice.
The first view of our beloved Alto, its muddy wastes and brickwork, leaves her gobsmacked, though she manages to comment, "ugly as Manchester", before the wells of conversation run dry. Even Joanne can tell I’m sulking.
"Look, if I've dragged you away from anything important, Jimmy, tell me." Oh, nothing, I don't reply, only the most important moment of my life to date. When you rang (smart of you to call from the stopover at Santa Cruz), the directorio were on the point of sorting my duties and designating ............ never mind, you couldn't understand.
"You've arrived, that's the important thing. And the Alto," I say dismissing, betraying, my home with a gesture, "isn't at all typical of Bolivia." I register Joanne's incipient wrinkles and stubbly grey hair, but what's really nagging me is how Luis contrived to appear, revving the Toyota motor, five minutes after her phone-call. A case of efficiency, intuition or eavesdropping?
Sensitive to my gaze on his back, Luis turns and regales us with an open grin. Joanne, staring into the chasm of his mouth, shudders and clamps her eyes shut for the rest of the journey.
The directorio stands to applaud our entrance.
For clarity's sake, I edit my translation of Elvira's welcoming address. "Your son's distinguished contribution (his work) among the dispossessed masses of this exploited country (with us) assists us to overcome the hurdles on the road to self-sufficiency (has helped)."
Even Joanne notes the shrinkage. "They believe in oratory, Mum." Oh, they do; if words were power, this collection of faded skirts and scuffed collars would rule the continent. Joanne gazes at them, quizzically. I know she's going to puncture their glamour at the first opportunity; undermining everything I do is her knack. Ragged not exotic, her look implies.
The mug of coca tea scalds her lips, just as it did mine on my first day, but the comparison ends there. She's already bored.
Amalia is enquiring politely, "What profession do you exercise, señora?"
I'm a social worker," Joanne replies, a cover-story she's used before. It wasn't true then, not unless sharing dope with one's case-load counts as counselling.
The members of the directorio nod sagely and pile on the compliments - your son, our lucky destiny, such a successful cursillo, we need his knowledge. But when resident shaman Alejandro smiles and intones, "Tu hijo muy sacrificado es," self-sacrificing, he says, I test the phrase for humour or prophecy before translating.
Throughout, Julio sits, arms crossed, not contributing to the praise.
"I've a few more hours of work ahead, mum. Shall I take you to the house?"
"No, I fancy wandering around a bit," which will give me a break before she returns moaning about the monotony. Better send Miguel as shepherd.
And it's a lively hour.
The diggers are accepted into the fold, the 13th. group, Berta tartly observes. Not for long. Alberto marches his maskmakers out on a pretext. Do they flinch at the prospect of political confrontation or is it the shrivelling of our funds that discourages them? Either way, losing a group feels like family bereaval.
Julio breaks the spell of shocked stillness. "I thought," he snaps at me, "not voting was meant to avoid such showdowns."
"Better off without that lot," whispers Berta.
"The world moves on, we'll survive," Lidia says and calls the next point on the agenda, the plumbing contracts. Basilio, weightier than any waiter now, explains. "We have first option on Villa Mercedario."
"Good, let's accept,” Elvira decides. “It's near the health clinic, so we can store our tools there. Jaime, you help reorganize the place." OK.
I don't quite understand this enthusiasm for trenching, but by the time Joanne reappears, pale and leaning on Miguelito's shoulder, three squads, the Diggers, Laikas and Kala Uyo women, have volunteered to begin work next Monday.
Joanne sinks into a corner and announces, "I have a migraine coming on." She's understood the Alto is no fun place and stares accusingly at me. The directorio, very concerned, urge me to take my mother home. They see a delicate flower, whereas I fear the kudzu weed that's invading my patch.
Chappie, you dumb beast, stop that yapping and circling. Believe me, the woman's not going to bend down and pet you. Joanne's a cat-person, even your scraps of instinct should tell you so.
Our arrival catches Asunta on the brink of her evening routine which commences early afternoon with a repeat of a favoured soap. Don't ask - hospital scenes and accusations, a few romantic interludes, interminably. I send her to air my sleeping-bag in Sandy's room and rustle up some rice and veg.
From her rucksack, Joanne produces a tin of rolling tobacco Golden Virginia, no less. Smooth and strong, it makes the Astorias taste like tar. We wreathe the room in smoke.
"Any countryside around here? Isn't there a lake or something?" I can feel it coming on; a couple of hours in town and she's slipping into a cycle of complaints. Next, it'll be my fault for missing out on the '60s, for being the white sheep in a family of two. Mum slurps at the coca tea from the unscalded corner of her mouth, treating the metal rim as if it were Chernobyl residue.
"Christ, this place suits you, Jimmy. It's so boring., and as for that maid of yours, does she really sleep in the cupboard under the stairs?"
"Makes her feel secure. Remember how I used to pile books round my bed."
"You always were territorial. Do I get a bedroom by the way, or is it a box for me too?"
"Room, sleeping bag, blanket and a mattress, all yours. I'll take you up."
At least she approves of Sandy's decorations, the tie-dye curtains, the cushions, the mandalas, an upside-down map of Australia, the photo of Einstein poking his tongue at the cosmos.
"Don't suppose you've anything smokeable," she moans, lighting an incense stick.
"See what I can do tomorrow. Just relax now."
Asunta, her duties over, squats by the tv, flicking the remote, hunting another soap. She's found one. A furtive kiss in a Waldo-like mansion, the music climaxes and fades; cut to toilet paper ad. Asunta surfs the channels with all the zeal of a pimply teenager. Hey, wait!!
So undignified wrestling my ancient servant for the controls, and she's surprisingly strong. Just give it to me. Damn, I've no idea how to operate this thing, whereas the illiterate granny does and she's just retreated into shock. I'm sorry, Asunta, truly sorry, please - but that's Pancho on the box, I'm sure of it, has to be him.
I fumble, the picture collapses into static.
Talking soothingly as to a trapped dove, I coax the black panel into her hand and soon she's pressing buttons automatically. A soap - wedding, the villain chuckling in the shadows. We have transmission, the old dear's a whizz. I’ll take it from here. Logic now, 'ch' for channel, up/down. Yes, there's Pancho.
In a darkened studio, his eyes glint behind the balaclava.
"And when you accuse us of receiving finance from abroad, aren't you forgetting this government's subjection to IMF and World Bank hand-outs?" The steady voice indicts, his finger points, a stilleto.
"Why not form a political party and fight these battles legitimately?" counters the interviewer, wiping a wimpish pair of spectacles on a very white handkerchief.
"Ha," hisses Pancho with disdain. "The sugar-coated bullet. We don't fall into that trap."
Joanne's shouting. I hare upstairs and explain that a friend of mine's on tv. "Oh, is he an actor?" "No, a revolutionary." "Jimmy, you’re so outdated. Would you mind making me another cuppa?" I rush down to find Asunta's changed back to the soap (weeping and wailing in the big house after the wedding). This time she won't surrender the remote until the commercial break.
Pancho is saying, "We can strangle the city so easily, Tupac Katari did. We'll starve it into submission. No, it won't be necessary to confront the military. I'm not going to ask my people to get killed."
"Tupac Katari failed," replies the clever-clever interrogator, wiping his spectacles on a silk handkerchief.
"Your mother takes sugar or not?" asks Asunta.
"Who knows? Just take the bowl up," I growl.
"Si caballero." Her return to deference is a sly dig. C'mon Asunta, I'm allowed to be agitated. Some risk Pancho's taken, this live TV appearance. At any moment, a dozen agents from the Ministry of Love could burst in and haul him off to their dungeons. But it's a tactical master-stroke too, displaying the humanity behind the mask.
"Not power," he's explaining to his bemused opponent, "we'll settle for equality." Palms upwards, an open gesture.
Pancho from the mines, neither a peasant nor a city-dweller, of unquestionable political pedigree. No outsider, he won't get shunted over the frontier like Che.
"Yes, mum, I'm coming."
"I've been thinking. Give me some bread and I'll go travelling, anywhere away from these slums."
"Let's go together. I could manage a weekend in Sorata. They say it's lovely there."
I yo-yo back to a blank screen.
"I didn't change it, caballero," pleads Asunta. "Se cortó." It was cut.
Back To The Walls
The road to Sorata bypasses the Lake before tumbling from the altiplano into perpetual spring. Joanne has blossomed in this warmer climate, boogying with the foreign-resident pack under purple bouganvilliae. Found her niche and a steady supply of homegrown. Not that she needs the drugs; Joanne's capable of synthesizing a high out of the air she breathes, can get drunk on undiluted water.
Our hotel was once a German trading post that dominated the quinine and rubber route, until the invention of the airplane ruined business forever. Antiques fill the rooms; it is perhaps the one place in the world where Kaiser Bill still hangs, a bust of Bismark by his side. I'm sipping tea in the sumptuous sitting room. From this patched leather armchair, I observe Joanne crossing the plaza on her daily jaunt from pizza parlour to café.
Enveloped in a sweet haze, she fails to note the barebones of authority on parade around the square - the town hall, the church, school, police station and cells, the stiff palm-trees fluttering their fronds genteely. Nor does she pick up on the angry campesinos encircling the town. A charming town, doubtless, colonial balconies overhanging steep lanes, views that ravish. One fanciful writer has linked Sorata to the original Eden. If this be paradise, serpents still glide amidst the orchards.
Don't like this place, and having to share it with Joanne (plus admirers) is wearisome. She's orbiting my planet, yet to land. So this week, I've been taking solitary walks, on ancient trails to the high places above town where condors fly and the green valleys coil like sleeping dragons. Behind me an icy mountain taps my shoulder, longing to chill me with its scale, but I won't turn round. The certainty that I shouldn't be anywhere near this town here jangles.
Everything’s freaking me, especially this hotel, or Residential, as the prim administrator (owners having long since fled to La Paz) insists on calling it. Within a courtyard garden, bees and humming-birds sip nectar until day fades. Then the snakeskins on the walls begin to snigger and ghosts of the rubber-barons prowl the high corridors, clutching their ledgers.
Aged 26, I watch them from the darkened sitting-room, still pretending that I'm not a child waiting for mum to return home. Creepy.
But seems like the entire town is on edge. Rumours fly. The campesinos are marching, whisper the shopkeepers. We'll be isolated, raped, killed at the very least. A tradition, says the administrator. Every uprising descends on Sorata. An easy prize, there to be sacked.
Verdad. Saturday morning and peasants are gathering about the square, a day before the market. I’ve seen that combination of mutterings and sly glances many times at Copcap. It bodes. I'm not budging from this chair until I receive a sign.
An official unlocks the gates of the plaza gardens (imagine the mentality required to bar the population during weekdays). Soon couples are strolling the pathways, relaxing by the pepperland bandstand, sucking ice-cream cones.
The red Volvo truck completes a lap and a half before parking right under my nose. A ridiculous number of passengers clamber out the truck, stretch their legs, think about food. They are miners in helmets and their wives and children and dogs and equipment on their way to Guanay, gold country.
The obese driver crushes his third beer-can and chucks it over the railings into a flowerbed. He hauls himself into the cabin, sounds the horn, starts the motor, yawns, backs into two kids. I hear bones pop. The town registers the screams.
Once it's confirmed that the injured are not locals, some curious bystanders stand by, not intervening. No-one calls a doctor or policeman. The miners bundle the bodies onto the truck which, weaving down the narrow street, disappears at speed.
The good citizens of Sorata shrug and resume their watchful indolence. Had it been one of their own, a lynch-mob would surely have formed. Instead, the ice-cream queue lengthens. And those palm trees are far too stolid to shudder.
Joanne comes soon after the incident, accident, negligence - whatever you'd call it, prattling about a necklace fashioned by her new Italian friend. She drags me down to the plaza and for a moment I think she's noticed the blood. No, she's showing me these thumb-sized grubs laid out on a cloth. Ugh, they're squirming in the sun. "Eat’em live," the vendor exhorts. "Good for the heart, good for the liver." Trapped in their cocoons, they wriggle.
At the hotel, the manager has this advice for us: "Better catch the midnight bus, if you want to get back. We'll be cut off tomorrow. In fact, it may already be too late." On the tv, distorted images of marches and clashes flicker.
Joanne adopts her cross-armed stance. "I'm not leaving. Nice spot this. No way I'm going back to that hell-hole of yours."
"Stay, mum. Stay till the situation eases a little. But I've just got to return. Here's some money." Cash in bolivianos, don't want her ripped off at the money exchange. Joanne'll be fine in this hippy heaven, unless she discovers it's paradise lost.
"I'm OK,” she affirms, taking the money nevertheless. “My friend's offered me a room up on the hill. I'm packing now. Hotels don't suit me, you know. Do say hi to the witch in the wardrobe." She can’t resist the swipe at Asunta. A peck on the cheek and half her stash of grass to cement our estrangement.
One last glimpse of her, hands in backpockets, Bette Davis style, rapping to a brown-eyed handsome man. They're standing over the stained Volvo tyre-tracks. Nice spot that.
Fine-tuned to survival, the populace are barricading themselves against the advancing night. Bolts scrape across stout doors, homes turning into castles. And none too soon. Scuttling shadows in the gloom. A stone shatters the sitting-room window, showering me with shards. "Lights out," the manager orders and offers me his handkerchief to staunch the wound.
The rain dampens the attack, hasta mañana.
By midnight, a small group of travellers has assembled in the main courtyard of the hotel. The Bolivians in the party are grumbling about uppity indios and the lack of adequate response from the authorities (tear-gas or bullets?). Damn city-slicker weekenders. The gringo contingent shelters stoically under their layers of dripping plastic.
An occasional volunteer peers into the street, but experience tells me that the bus isn't going to appear until we've given up and decided to go to bed. Yup, four o'clock in the morning, here it comes, a very ancient lumbering beast.
From their refuges around the square, more passengers emerge and converge, elbowing for seats. The sourmash smell on the driver's breath indicates he is functioning, stopped drinking several hours ago. So with luck we may avoid sliding off the hillside.
To leave Sorata, one first descends into the river valley, before climbing to the big cross (as in cruxifixion), where the road curves and the town is lost to sight. We do complete this stage. Beyond the bend, however, the road is blocked by a tree-trunk, which some of us push at jokingly. It's immovable, indeed barely credible that the locals managed to haul it into position. End of bus journey.
Our driver not daring to turn on the tight bend, the alternatives are - trudge back to Sorata (down & up), stay put until dawn and fall into campesino hands, or start towards the altiplano.
"They'll never let you through," the paceño majority whine as they retreat, buckling under the weight of their belongings, wishing they could just fly across the valley to the lights over yonder.
Eight of us opt for the epic trek, 2 Canadians, an Italian, an Australian, a Swede, one Bolivian couple and myself. Those with waterproofs maintain an air of enterprise, the Bolivians and I drip like sodden rats, all of us propelled by the driving rain at our backs. Squelch left, squelch right, onwards ever upwards, thoughts washed clean.
First light and we're strong, though no changes yet to report in the vegetation, meaning the altiplano can't be anywhere near. The weather has eased, so a halt to review our food supplies. Having assumed that La Paz was a mere 4-hour drive away, we can muster two packets of crackers and a bunch of bananas,.
"The road ahead may also be blocked," the couple comment. "You’d expect oncoming traffic."
"Or maybe they’re not risking a journey till dawn," ventures an optimist.
"Maybe," they say.
During the night I was pleased to discover the body's impermeable qualities. The process only works one way. Now I'm sweating under the sun, steaming. So it's a relief when we're engulfed in cloud, a sign that the top can't be far off. Yet around each bend, more hill - no wonder they call them bluffs. But tracts of open land too, where waves of mist float by, revealing lichen-nuzzled stone and tough, tufty grass.
Our once compact group has stretched into striders and stragglers. It’s the road-hardened hikers who stumble on the overturned truck. Then we all cluster around it, examining the smashed windscreen, the bloodtraces on the doorhandle, playing at detectives. This is an extremely large truck to be lying on its side, stripped as if by soldier ants. How many hands pushed it over? Where's the driver? Where's the load?
Seated on a clammy boulder, I roll a golden virginia ciggie, fifty/fifty with Joanne's grass and realise my mistake almost immediately. The first pebbles clatter against the truck. Watch us scramble for cover and then pretend we were kidding when we spot the small Aymara boy with a sling. His volley of pot-shots all whizz safely past us, though I suspect he's missing on purpose to show off his accuracy and restraint, the little blighter.
A scare later at la Rinconada where local campesinos man the blockade. They glare but allow us through and soon we've reached a small village where the storekeeper overcharges for the stale bread and dusty cans of tuna/sardine.
On the flat at last, the road threading between waterlogged fields. That same chilly mountain glistens on the horizon. The folk we meet aren't hostile but they do stare and who can blame them? Normally we’d video the picturesque peasantry from our cars and buses. Few gringos have ever deigned to walk this road.
If the mistimed joint makes the trek seem endless, well, we can talk. The Bolivian couple are an economist and sociologist working in La Paz. I give them snippets of my tale. "Sure, come visit our office. Let's coordinate. We’ll help you find your feet," and other such kind offers, exhaustion lending credence to their words.
"Over there, " Sergio points. Across the wide plain, a hill. Under the hill, a dun-coloured town, a river, a bridge. "Achacachi," he says. Ah, the dread Achacachi.
"It’s not as bad as its reputation," Pati says.
"Except when they get excited," Sergio grimaces.
The garrison outside town is strangely silent. On my journey out, the soldiers strutted, checking all IDs with maximum insolence. Now they're confined to barracks, jittery eyes darting from behind the mud battlements.
And guess what? Piles of rubble obstruct the bridge, forcing us to wade thigh-deep through the river. We trip on the carcasses of rusty vehicles; the spectators above laugh, but do refrain from chucking stones.
A gauntlet awaits us, all the way to the wide plaza. According to Sergio, Achacachi was the centre of campesinos militancy in '52 when change stood a chance of happening. Then the middle-class urban lefties sold the revolution for Yankee loans. The resentment lives on.
Delegates from all the nearby countryside have assembled today. The plaza is a boiling cauldron of discussion. Men and women, brandishing whips and pickaxe handles argue in clusters, each group like a tortoise-shell.
Camouflaged against the adobe walls and closed store-fronts, we tiptoe as if skirting landmines. So intense is the debate that we might have made it, but for the child who tugs the sleeve of his mother's bright-green cardigan. All eyes are on us once she yells.
I want to sink into the muddy ground when Sergio tries negotiating. Don't know what he believes of these people, but he shouldn't be offering a bribe to that character in ear-flaps and waistcoat who carries an antique rifle, probably cached since '52. The man shreds the orange-coloured twenty note and hurls the segments to the wind. He makes a remark in Aymara and his companions exhale scornfully. Those that do not laugh, turn away.
It's my turn, but without Rigoberto's protection, I feel naked representing this bunch of backpackers. Namedropping doesn't make any impression (though I've enough sense not to mention Pancho). Apparently, no-one understands my Spanish; black looks, wrinkled brows. That's absurd, every adult male hereabouts must be more fluent in the language than I am.
They push us to the centre of the square and force us to sit under a basketball hoop while the groupings reform and debate resumes.
"Are we hostages?" asks the Canadian.
"Whoever'd be interested in rescuing us or paying ransome?" I hazard. "Let's say that for the moment there's no through route. Things have a way here of sorting themselves out. Patience."
That's the speech for the tourists. I try consulting in Spanish with Sergio and Pati, but it's clear they've never been judged by project beneficiaries before and are rattled. I'd be content observing the mechanics of the meetings, it's become a speciality of mine, were it not that we're famished. Yet no-one moves. We all sense the fury in the ferment.
By the fading light, we're escorted to a backstreet. Dried potatoes and assorted roots are appetizing when spiced with hunger. Tepid, watery coffee to complete the meal. The travellers unfurl sleeping bags, we amateurs fold our jackets on the earthern floor. It's not the cold or discomfort that robs me of sleep. I shouldn't be in this position; from hero to nobody, on the wrong side of the fence. Embarrassing.
"Buenos dias, Jaime." At the sound of the thin, nearly familiar voice, I stagger into the dawn. "Am I glad to see you, Ismael," I say, fumbling to pump his hand and embrace him in the same action. The Laika schoolteacher does not smile.
"I was watching yesterday, but couldn't help in the circumstances. I’d like to know what you are doing here, Jaime."
"My mother arrived and so I took her to Sorata and .........."
"You were to stay in La Paz. Why have you deserted your post?"
"Can you help us get out?"
"I have arranged your release, not for that of your friends."
Don't mistake my stand for heroism. Maybe I'm afraid to walk the altiplano alone. Maybe I don't want my reputation back home as shredded as that twenty-boliviano note.
"These visitors, they all support you, Ismael. Not one is against the uprising."
"We don't require this type of assistance."
"You've accepted mine."
"You are considered distinct. Don't ask me why."
"I'm not leaving without them."
Ismael nods, taking the decision on his own authority.
"There's a coffee stall in the market. See you in half an hour. Since I have business in the city, I'll be accompanying you."
Our band is suspicious, then incredulous. Only when we've passed the town limits do they express their admiration, but I push them aside and walk ahead alone, though I suspect Ismael wishes to converse. I'm chastened and nervy.
Teachers, like politicians, will do anything for an audience and soon he's expounding the subtleties of Aymara pronunciation, the differences between apirated and glotalized phonemes. (For those interested, the q of q'ara explodes, that in q''antati sighs. Now you know).
I fall back and join the group. Against my will, I'm listening. Ismael, educator not teacher, a fascinator. For each community we pass, he relates a story, painting the harsh tones of the stonescape, explaining the knife-edge of survival. If too much, too little, rain doesn't ruin the crops, hail and frost will. The altiplano is marginal, elemental, essential.
On the edge of this immense plain, the colours that surround us are subdued and simple - greys, greens, browns - and yet each time I'm on the high plain has to be the most vivid experience of my life.
The first lesson on my return, is how some favourite jokes have a limited shelf life. This one: Robin Hood stole from the rich because it was hardly worth robbing the poor. Wrong! Fortunes are made fleecing the poor, just ask any landlord, pub owner or drug dealer. Ask Edmundo.
When Wim's pal scoured the computer memory, he found project accounts which ought to have contained nearly $300,000, enough to relaunch Copcap in Machaq Q'' mode, and then some. But the bank claims these accounts are empty. Meanwhile, the donor agencies have salted the wound by announcing a permanent halt to our funding. Muchas gracias amigos mios and thanks for the vote of confidence.
According to local wisdom, in an emergency organize a commission, though I'd prefer a posse to blast the white-collar bandits. “Lidia and Amalia will deal with the bank,” Elvira orders. “At the same time, it’s vital we make contacts among fraternal organizations. That couple you met on your walk, Jaime, you and Julio can start with them. Just get downtown before the city's closed off."
Tomorrow’s Tuesday, but superstition is suspended until further notice.
Julio my brother, arrives early, just when Ignatz and his pseudo-bells are bludgeoning the first birdcalls. Chappie prances, Asunta shuffles to the kitchen, I stare from my window at Julio's formal dress. Very dapper in his jacket and tie, ironed grey pants, a tight white shirt accentuating his pectorals nicely - not that such details interest me anymore.
"Whose funeral?" I joke from the bedroom window.
"To be taken seriously one must be presentable. Dirty jeans shows a total lack of respect, Jaime," he calls up. "So I've brought you some clothes." He brandishes a bulging polythene bag and though wearing Julio's second-best gear could be an honour, a wicked little turn-on even, I refuse. Jeans define my cultural identity as much as the bowler, pollera and shawl do for the women hereabouts.
"I'll never understand you gringos," he sighs over a steaming coffee. His sudden use of the g-word stings.
Amalia and Lidia are waiting by the avenue, fretful that we might not get past the marchers. They're right; even at this hour the Alto is simmering. In the Ceja, police and students jockey for control of the pedestrian walkways, seven narrow metal bridges spanning the roadway to the city, though neither party is too sure they want the prize. Great vantage point for hurling rocks, potential trap when the gas shifts in the wind.
Our Especial squeezes between a yellow bulldozer and the jagged barricade, moments before the trap snaps shut, last vehicle through. The crush of passengers threatens Julio’s immaculate wardrobe, separates us, freeing me to dream of pines, the lakes, those drunken Finns. Yes, it's that Rovaniemi bus again, and I enjoy a hard-on remembering Lothar, until we spin at an angle to the beer factory. Blocked. Disturbances downtown too. Well, we can walk to the centre from here.
The city feigns nonchalance. A fine autumn sunlit morning for businessmen to sip their espressos by and disregard the clouds gathering. Listen to them as they flick through their newspapers - government hints at state of emergency, good job too, put those savages back in place. Threat, what threat? Ah the concert tonight, boleros and tangos, better not dare touch that.
"If we get no satisfaction from the bankers, I'm going to denounce the bastards to the authorities," Lidia declares. I point to the paramilitary police by the bank, who’re swapping crude jests and cigarettes, who’ve lowered their visors and turned into an animal horde. Those pigs aren’t paid to serve us. Justice be damned, they’ll be cracking our skulls soon. "I'm not scared," Amalia declares. "But come in with us, lads. I want you to witness this."
We do and so can vouch for the episode.
Inside, Julio and I observe the spectacle of shirt-sleeved clerks attempting to ignore the combined weight of a hundred kilos of tenacity and the pocket whirlwind. These two indigenous women do not conform to the bank's idea of influential customers, but it's no contest. When a guard moves to prevent them marching into the manager's office, a volley of Aymara to his bronzed face stops him short. Could be his mother lecturing him.
Inside the battle is subtler. Nothing special, merely routine humiliation as practised daily by the Bolivian gentry since their selfish independence from the Spanish crown. The plump, bearded official pulls the pat-on-the-head trick first. "Hijitas," he condescends, 'little daughters', not yet understanding that one doesn’t scale a mountain or dam a stream with clichés. “How can I be of service to you?” He wipes the crumbs of a meat pastry from his jacket.
"Señor," Lidia chides, "we are not here to play polite games. We’re inquiring about irregularities in our account number 00-78659-348, registered in the name of the Association ......" etc.
Placing dark glasses on the bridge of bulbous nose, el licenciado switches to legalese. Certain memoranda, codes and seals are required before access is conceded. Amalia removes a stack of documents from her shopping bag, including the notarised minutes of the assembly. Together the papers prove entitlement.
"Ah well," he burps, tugging at gold cufflinks and beginning to sweat, "in that case, it is my duty to inform you that the account was closed some weeks back." Hard to decide which is more remarkable; his happening to recall this fact from the thousands of files he handles, or his reluctance to tell us in the first place.
The shuffling of papers should indicate a conclusion of the interview, but Amalia has produced a torn, worn receipt-pad. "We already know that and as treasurer, I'm surprised not to have received a record of such withdrawals. I suggest we examine your data here at the bank. Or would you perhaps prefer we consult the Superintendency of Banks first."
The official can hardly believe her effrontery. He stands, swells his chest authoritatively. "Privileged transactions may be inspected only by judicial order."
"A robbery has occurred and you are clearly an accomplice," Lidia cries.
"How dare you accuse me, señora." (In his indignation he's forgets to use the insulting diminutive form). "You will leave now or I'll have you arrested." And he easily could. The two square up, eyeball to tinted shades.
"If I might be permitted a word," I interrupt. "As a British citizen and, since this undoubtedly affects my work, I feel that my embassy should be notified of the affair." Hot air; the embassy limits its interests to radio equipment for the narcotics police, gobbling up privatised water resources and the sale of old Tesco teabags to a few local supermarkets. Still, worth a shot. And, yes, our incorruptible manager does fear this kind of exposure.
There's little we can do, however, on seeing the evidence except curse Faustino for his betrayal. As head of the outgoing directorio, he countersigned all the withdrawal slips. Quite a herd of livestock he'll have acquired with his share of the proceeds.
Up against the wall, bastards. Amalia and Lidia shove the guard aside and he crumples despite his badge, his uniform and gun. But in the street, a whiff of teargas, the system reacting in its inimitable fashion. Our staunch women moisten their handkerchiefs and set to stalking the nearest skirmish.
"Not you two," they say, turning us back. "Now that the Association needs money, keep that appointment." We're despatched to middle-class Sopocachi, on the scrounge, begging in the bowl of La Paz.
And nearly don't get to meet anyone. The harpy of a secretary assesses us with lipsmacking disapproval - scruffy foreigner, dark-skinned local youth. But once I’ve obliged her to contact Sergio, she has to escort us, matronizingly it must be said, into the open-plan Scandinavian-stark office.
Do I note a hum of activity? More likely, it's the air-conditioning (in this city?) or the ventilators that cool all those rows of computers. Glued to their screens, a dozen operators have perfected the art of looking busy. Sergio and Pati take a moment to recognize real, that is non-virtual, visitors and then lead us to a conference room. Direct communication disrupts the office, Sergio explains. Indeed, heads are swivelling. One hardly needs a geiger counter to measure levels of jealousy in this polished-pine expanse.
"So, how can we be of assistance?" Pati asks, unknowingly mirroring the bank manager. But didn’t we discuss this on our long march? You promised...... "Ah yes," she backtracks. "Certainly, we are a financing agency, but only to channel funds.......... (right, you don’t actually soil your hands), “to worthwhile proposals," she concludes. Well, wonderful, that’s us, isn’t it?
Sergio proudly recites figures which somehow imply my work is trivial. 250 greenhouses (probably all empty), 43 health centres (if they're anything like Beto's), two dozen educational projects (that camouflage governmental apathy). “And when you light that cigarette in your hand," he adds, "all the smoke-detector alarms will go off and we'll have to evacuate the building." This conversation is beginning to piss me off.
The sterile and claustrophic glass-bubble of a conference room anaesthetises. Sergio and Pati, your typical unemployable sociologists, cocooned in this ngo, have launched into a digression and are focusing on Julio, whom I suspect they'd normally not bother to treat as a fellow ex-student. Hey, I butt in, our association is one of those worthy causes. Don't you want to support us? I retell the story of the intervention, spicing it with fresh evidence of theft and corruption, but they've shifted back to Julio and abstract theories of liberation, consciousness raising, solidarity for our times. What's going on?
When the room fills for a coffee-break, more of the screenwatching graduates join the conversation. For an agency dedicated to the underprivileged, there is (how shall we put this?) a distinct absence of indigenous faces around the place.
One undiplomatic soul finally passes the message. Yes, Machaq Q'' is an outstanding achievement, but the word on the street is that you're linked to terrorist elements, which is a no-no, uncool and prejudical to the whole development community. Hence the cold shoulder.
They return to the safe discussion and I'm reminded of the old conundrum - how many engineers it takes to change a light bulb. Babble on, Babylon.
I grab Julio, who's seduced by their attention, and we retire.
To a shaken city. The wind carries the poisonous tang of distantly booming tear-gas canisters. What a very effective team Amalia and Lidia make. La Paz, if not paralysed, is limping.
In the respectable, expensive Sopacachi market, well-heeled housewives are panic buying, milling like a herd of mad cows, loading their little servant girls with bags of anything snatchable, cursing the cholitas for tripling prices in one afternoon. Supply and demand, ladies, don’t you know. Taste the free market as promoted by your husbands over these last years.
We decide to persist with the development circuit/circus. Never know, one could get lucky and hit paydirt.
“South?” suggests Julio.
“Do you have a visa?” I ask, raising a laugh. My reference is to the US embassy’s habit of refusing visitors’ visas to those Bolivians who don’t play the game. “Muy bien,” says Julio. “Just the downtown agencies, then.” And a dismal trawl it proves to be. Some of them want to use us, all of them want to abuse us. They’re shitting in their breeches, blame Machaq Q’’ for fomenting, stirring, fanning, succouring the looming conflict. Our association is infamous and penniless.
It’s a long, arduous, cross-city trek home. Amid the rock-showers and cannonades of gas, La Paz assumes a frantic, cartoony quality. Engrossed in conversation, Julio and I stroll with impunity through charging, retreating crowds that scamper across our screen.
I’m no expert on psychology, couldn’t tell you whether Sergio and pals were purging their inferiority or superiority complexes. But I've blown enough dope in my life to know that desire influences its recipients subtly. So, I’m not surprised how Julio has turned from me. After all, I’ve been slavering over his body whilst denigrating his mind. And at some level he knows. Yet this afternoon we find a new intimacy.
Odd, after spending the day struggling to secure the long-term safety of our guild, maybe we both sense that the crisis will tear it apart, tear us apart. He tells me of his family, the hardworking mama, absent father, brood of siblings, the burden of being out-of-work, out-of-tune with his profession. I’m different he says. Do I sense a sounding of the sexual waters? No, I’m tired, I won’t interrogate fate now. This guy carries burdens, while I’m only haunted by the devils I’ve invented.
Even so, when he says, “I’ve learnt so much from you, Jaime,” doubts return. “And if I tell you I’m not a teacher.”
“Oh, but you are. Such an effective teacher.”
“Vamonos muchacho, el cursillo was terrible, a mess.”
“No, it wasn’t. You let us examine the problems for ourselves. No Bolivian teacher would have allowed that. I’m going to miss you, I really am.”
“Are you travelling?”
“Oh, you don’t know then,” he says and shuts up.
Have I misread the entire situation? Confidence, man, confidence. That bridge over the chasm isn’t going to disintegrate, not unless you question whether it’s there.
We get a lift up the motorway to the Ceja, thank goodness. Ha, the town hall’s in flames! Bonfires also light the avenues, more than on San Juan night, and around each, figures eating and resting. No transport, however.
We reach the house beyond the point of exhaustion. It’s late, and I do believe that my invitation to stay is unblemished by desire. On the other hand, suppressing lust is like squeezing a balloon which will eventually burst.
He takes a shower, he takes a drink, he takes the joint without comment, arching his eyebrows a little. The best seduction technique in the world isn’t going to work without collusion. He sits on Sandy’s mattress, stripped to the waist, flaunting his torso, tensing, untensing those sinewy arms. The jeans I’ve lent him cleave to lanky thighs. He must feel the tension rising. It’s all I can do not to throw myself on him. Pouring petrol on the flames, I ask, “You have a girlfriend?”
When a moreno blushes the colour doesn’t change, but his temperature does. Massaging knuckles, he replies, “Not possible, I’ve never had the chance.” Of course he’s a virgin.
Now for tactics, spiking the brew with the tale of my own initiation, (remember Carol the aikido kid), and then moving on through sundry episodes, male and female, until I have us both aroused, crotches bulging.
“You’re so lucky,” he breathes.
No, I’m cool and cynical. “Now or never, Julio. The real revolution is about expressing yourself.”
“Teach me, pues.”
Creeping day is the enemy that sneaks up on our adventure. Throughout the night, amazed, I chart the rhythms of our sleep, deep sighs, an occasional shudder, the reflexive tightening, loosening of embraces. I’m a navigator certain of landfall. But dawn drags jaundiced sunlight over the horizon and Julio awakes to perspective, definition, a feeling of abnormality.
Not even one embarrassed kiss. A forced smile, and he’s scooting from the house without daring to confront Asunta. Courage, Julio, panic is unnecessary, we’re past the reefs. Yet the street-door slams, metallic, final, and I’m left to savour the irony of my lover fleeing the encounter - my usual role.
A pop-eyed Einstein shows me his tongue. Morning, Bertie!
I hum, stretch, choose faded jeans appropriate to a day’s digging.
Languid and slow, I will enjoy breakfast.
And one hour layer while crossing Villa Abdulla’s holy turf, my eyes fixed on the ground, I fail to see Doña Teofila. I don’t hear her either, because Ignatz has anticipated Easter by linking his sound system to various steeples. The area sounds like a concentration camp on ecstasy.
“Joven Jaime,” she repeats, tugging at my sweater, “Buen dia. Have you gone deaf or is it last night’s girl? She must have been something special.” Oh, you’d be surprised, he was. “Come and join us a while,” Heraclia insists.
Our ladies of the market sit sentinel-still as if moulded to the adobe. Only their cheeks, stuffed with coca, move. The inactivity is surprising since markets are as much about socializing as selling. Then again, at harvest-time, one would expect to find piles of greenhouse lettuce, onions, altiplano potatoes and quinua grain, corn from the valleys, fruit so abundant as to almost be free. That’s how it usually is – the purest, cheapest, tastiest food imaginable.
The blockade is biting and these señoras neither complain nor overcharge for the scant rations that remain but, gathered in their usual place, await the command to mobilize. When that happens, the term ‘market forces’ will acquire a whole new meaning.
After a silent chew, Heraclia asks, “Are you on your way to the contract?”.
“Yes. Tell Don Basilio, we’re ready to start next week.”
“Why’s everyone so enthusiastic?”
“There’s no other income, Jaime. This is very important for the association.”
Granted, but when I do locate the site, on the far side of a bridge to nowhere, it resembles performance-art. From the disconnected trenches that trail across the plain, shovelfuls of rocks and soil leap randomly. The women of Kala Uyo sift these into piles until a dusty head emerges above ground-level, whereupon refreshment is served. Tough, yes, but I see neither plan nor purpose.
“You will when el eje is positioned,” says Basilio.
“The control axis. You don’t think a complex sewerage system can flow over flat land without some kind of impulsion, do you?”
I haven’t the slightest idea, the details are beyond me. Just so much dirty water, Machaq Q” ’s little slosh-fund, far as I’m concerned.
“See,” he says, “those new neighbourhoods are expanding towards this point. We’re between villas and.........” so on, his explanation suffocated by a lowflying aircraft.
The guided tour takes us past a re-creation of World War One without the armaments, and finally to Basilio’s potato patch which his family is now harvesting. I’m introduced to wife and sons, then given my task, to rearrange the old health centre.
“The pipes are already outside. Don’t worry, they’re too heavy for anyone to walk away with and, anyway, Kala Uyo are taking turns to sleep there at night. But hurry and clean inside, los ejes should be arriving today.”
Since no-one else is exactly pushing it, I decide to take a stroll by the Rio Seco riverbed. Under a merciless, glaring, pulsing sky, long-billed wading birds poke morosely. They and I’ll miss the clouds. That hike from Sorata probably saw the last rain before the dry season’s return.
Back at the ex-clinic, five-metre metal pipes are stacked all around. Within, the women have shoved everything to one corner. After sweeping some dirt under the shelves and running a cloth across the dust-coated furniture, I’m not too clear what else is required. Maybe I should box the odd loose item.
Cleaning done, I fashion a joint, then move outside. Joanne’s grass has been harvested too early or I’m getting immune to its charms. It flatters to deceive like Sorata itself. Nevertheless the pipe of peace over the pieces of pipe contrives to fashion an event. The frail figure stumbling over the gravel has to be the doctor himself.
Beto offers me a cigarette and we smoke while he’s recovering his breath (takes a smoker to understand this counter-intuitive remedy). That hangdog, bloated expression, is it the consequence of his losing the job or of losing Vanesa? He’s decayed over the last month. Either way I’m responsible.
Beto must suspect, she’s probably told him. What shall I say when he asks? Yes, I am servicing your woman and she drains me (an unintentional pun, seated on this sewage pipe). He might then enquire why I continue and I’d have to admit to the thrill of watching a respectable matron transform herself into a whore, the sleazy motel itself an essential backdrop. Or perhaps I should just boast that in having a mistress, I test myself.
He mentions nothing of the matter, beyond an eloquent reproachful look.
Instead, “I need to discuss my redundancy pay. The office is empty and.the caretaker said you’d be here.” Sorry about the inconvenience, Beto. That old place has lost its status since the money ran out. “But didn’t we settle up?”
“Oh no, I was sick and missed the pay-out. Don’t suppose it matters, but I would like to finish correctly. Perhaps I could just help myself to some in the equipment in lieu.”
Don’t see why not. The deflated doctor rummages, sorting medicines, syringes, bandages. In my stoned head the room echoes to the final bars of his impotent romance. Too melancholy. Have to cut outdoors.
When he joins me, Beto has regained some of his former perkiness. He suggests we survey the excavations. “You’ll never beat the Bolivian miner at digging,” he says, trenchantly admiring the trenchwork. “Mind you, this is child’s play compared to being hundreds of metres below ground. Of course, they’re naturally lazy.” Oh those prejudices of yours that taint.
The facts do seem to back him, though. Eleven of the morning and there’s no-one in sight. We discover the picks and shovels carelessly dropped near the lunch-bundles. Most unwise, because there are stone/sand/gravel-collectors loading their trucks close by who wouldn’t say no to some extra tools.
“They will have their reasons for leaving, they always do,” Beto remarks.
“Well, let’s sit down here and guard the gear.” With the doctor for company, conversation is never a problem. Our location under the flightpath sets him reminiscing.
“You know, my boy, for years a La Paz airport was considered impossible. All because of that Italian Rapini and his co-pilot. They landed the first bi-plane right here in the Alto. 1913 it was, if my memory doesn’t fail me.” Today he looks timeworn enough to have witnessed the landing.
“Well, people had heard of flying machines, but one actually falling out of the sky, that was sensational. Course, the Alto was desolate in those days except for a few haciendas, but word spread and a crowd accompanied the aviators down to the city. President Ismael Montes himself received them. They got diplomas, medals, gala dinners for a couple of days, you can imagine. And then.....” He frowns and lights another cigarette.
“The crowd followed them back up. One last speech. And the damn thing wouldn’t take off. Air too thin. Taxied around for ages till they crashed into some peasants who’d gotten overcurious. Killed two of them. Rapini and friend had to escape to Chile on horseback. Abandoned the plane.”
Beto, I’m not at all sure I like that story. La Paz the lobster-pot, easy to enter, impossible to leave. In my present situation, I could take the moral personally. Or is that your intention? No time to ask, because at the clinic our missing folk have materialized, carting coffin-shaped crates.
We desert the tools, wander over in time to catch Rigoberto posting a ‘strictly no smoking’ sign by the wooden boxes which are stencilled in Chinese and Hebrew. “Los ejes de control,” Basilio explains. Axes, axles, whatever - an eclectic range of sponsors we have for this project.
Rigoberto is spitting mad on recognizing the doctor. “Redundancy pay, nonsense. Este carajo,” he curses, “stole at least fifty thousand dollars from us last year,” and he snatches the plastic bag in which Beto has stashed a few medical supplies, empties it onto the floor